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London is full of life and greener than many think.
  • Square Meal – why we need a new approach to food and farming

    The Government’s Farmland Bird Indicator tracks the fortunes of a range of bird species which live and breed in lowland farmland, such as turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Its recent publication revealed yet another drop in numbers.

    The term ‘Farmland bird indicator’ sounds rather dry and technical and the story that this indicator tells is perhaps hard for many of us to relate to. This is because the story is one of loss – loss on such an enormous scale that it is hard to visualize, but which has seen the transformation of the countryside in a generation.

    Throughout the UK, over 44 million pairs of breeding birds have gone in less than 50 years.

    They have vanished at the rate of one pair every minute.  

    Nowhere have these losses been more pronounced than on the land which produces our food.  And it isn’t only birds that are disappearing. Last year’s State of Nature report, an important stock take of UK wildlife, found that for many groups, the picture is bleak if things continue as they are. Despite the clear evidence that changes in agriculture have been a major cause of wildlife declines, successive governments have failed to get to grips with this issue or stand up to the vested interests that have a stranglehold over food and farming policy.

    The recent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform process is a classic example. It’s estimated by some that the average UK household spends over £400 paying for the CAP each year, but precious little of this money is directed towards those farmers, many on the edge of commercial survival, who are doing most for society as a whole. The recent reform was a great opportunity to change this in favour of farmers doing their bit to support wildlife. Instead the beneficiaries of the status quo prevailed and the €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money spent on the CAP across the EU will deliver little in the way of public benefit. 

    Most frustrating of all has been the emergence of the ‘food security’ argument that claims the priority is to maximise UK food production to feed a growing global population.. which means there isn’t room for wildlife. This argument is fallacious 

    The Square Meal report

    on many levels and ignores the fact that many people are already unable to access adequate, nutritious food despite there being an oversupply[1]. Clearly this is not a problem of there being insufficient food to go around. Yet there is little political will to address the environmental degradation and inequality of resource usage that actually jeopardises food security, especially for the most vulnerable.

    This is why we are excited by a new initiative which saw a range of organisations coming together to call for a re-framing and widening of the debate on food and farming, so that all of us can have a say in how the UK is farmed.  

    'Square Meal: why we need a new recipe for farming, wildlife, food and public health’ is a new report published by a collaboration of ten UK organisations with expertise across food, environment, farming and health. It calls for stronger government leadership and an integrated approach recognising food and farming are central to many of the pressing social and environmental challenges we face.

    Most importantly, it provides a positive vision for what our food and farming system could deliver if the right decisions are made. An approach based on improving health; reconnecting with food and nature; good food for all; sustainable, resilient farming; and a return of colour and sound to the countryside.

    Read the report and have your say at the Food Research Collaboration website.



    [1] World Food Programme (2014). What causes hunger? http://www.wfp.org/hunger/causes 

    This is a guest blog, written by the RSPB's Senior Agriculture Policy Officer, Abi Burns.

  • New homes to be built on Richmond Park*

    Greater London has some magnificent places .. Centrally, there is St Paul's Cathedral, the Tate Modern, Trafalgar Square and of course the London Eye.

    Side-on view of the London Eye (c) Tim Webb

    There are also open and natural spaces such as Hyde Park, Epping and Hainault forests, Hampstead Heath, Ingrebourne Marshes, the mighty Thames, Wimbledon Common and London's biggest green lung, Richmond Park.

    Epping Forest

    In fact there are 36 places designated as being Sites of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] in Greater London. This means they are protected from disturbance and development because of their value to nature and society. In reality, they may soon be as vulnerable to development as any other location, thanks to a decision by Medway councillors.

    They have rubber stamped planning permission for 5,000 new homes to be built on an ex Ministry of Defence site in Kent called Lodge Hill, parts of which are designated SSSI land because it is a breeding site for nightingales. This may not seem a lot, but 1% of the UK's entire population can be found at Lodge Hill. The species is vanishing and building on a site where 1% of the nation's favourite songbird breeds would seriously exacerbate that decline. There are options which Medway councillors could consider to reach their obligatory housing target without all the implications of Lodge Hill. 

    If their decision goes unchallenged, it sets a national precedent leaving all other SSSI sites effectively fair game for development. London's glorious Richmond Park could feasibly be transformed into a housing estate. The RSPB supports moves to build homes and infrastructure. We believe this can be done while saving, and often enhancing special places and wildlife; the things that make up our fabled green and pleasant land and provide natural spaces within our urban settings. We vehemently oppose Medway's decision.

    We have written to Eric Pickles, the Minister responsible for housing, urging him to "call-in" this planning decision for a judicial review. This should allow full consideration of the facts and options. Mr Pickles will be making a decision over the next few days. We have until Thursday 25 of September to show him the strength of public support for precious places like Lodge Hill, Hampstead Heath, Gungrog Flash in Powys, the Avon Gorge, Bodmin Moor, Manchester's Nob End, Aberdeen's Pittodrie, Buttermere and Scafell Pikes in Cumbria, Rathlin Island, the Ribble Estuary or North Yorkshire's Three Dykes .. to name just a dozen.

    Hampstead Heath looking towards the city

    This is an occasion where volume matters. Please add your name to our e-action showing Eric Pickles that people in the UK are passionate about protecting special places and the wildlife which help define our national character.

    * Signing our e-action will save amazing places like Richmond Park ... so PLEASE do add your name.

     

  • Can Pickles preserve our nightingales?

    "It'll be nice for residents to have birdsong," was the ignorant off-the-cuff comment overheard by RSPB staff who'd been in the public gallery attending a Medway Council planning meeting.

    Local residents, campaigners and developers had attended to hear councillors debate an application to build 5,000 new homes at Lodge Hill  in North Kent on a former Ministry of Defence site.

    Everyone knows homes are desperately needed; for both people and nature. But this planning application is about more than meeting a local housing need driven by Government targets requiring local authorities to embark on a long-overdue building crusade. This application not only condemns a locally important breeding colony of nightingales to extinction, it also throws down a gauntlet that, if left unchecked, would allow builders to trash protected nature sites nationally. I for one am wholly opposed to both outcomes. They're avoidable and unnecessary.

    That overheard comment was based on suggestions some of the resident nightingales would somehow survive the transformation from woodland and nationally protected land into a housing estate. We submitted evidence warning that the loss of the habitat would lead to the loss of these red-listed birds. We contacted councillors and their officers. We aired our concerns in the local media. We also warned that ignoring the sites' protected status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] would fly in the face of UK Government legislation. Medway Council has chosen to challenge UK law and ignore their moral responsibility to the future of declining nightingales.

    We are challenging their decision and have launched an e-petition urging Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to "call-in" this application and allow the rigorous process of a public inquiry to rule on the matter. If the development goes ahead, it will be one of the largest losses of SSSI land in the country since the mid-1990's.

    Secretary of State Eric Pickles has the power to save Lodge Hills' nightingales and the UK's protected places from unsuitable development.

    Lodge Hill sits on north Kent's Hoo Peninsula. It's a little gem of a spot, not far from London, treasured for its wildlife. It's an area requiring more housing and employment. In short, it needs a detailed review of its needs and a clinical assessment of its full wealth of resources to ensure future development enhances the area for people, nature and its economy. The current plan of action falls far short of what the Hoo Peninsula needs and deserves.

    This is a matter of national importance for the future of the UK's struggling wildlife, especially the immediately threatened nightingales. We'd like to demonstrate to Eric Pickles just how strong public opinion is for nature. So please do sign our e-petition and join us and the local MP, Mark Reckless, in backing the Government’s own guidance on developing protected sites. Save Lodge Hill from this unsuitable, unsustainable, unprecedented, unscientific and over-optimistic development.